While washing the dishes one should only be washing the dishes, which means that while washing the dishes one should be completely aware of the fact that one is washing the dishes. At first glance, that might seem a little silly:
Why put so much stress on a simple thing? But that's precisely the point. The fact that I am standing there and washing these bowls is a wondrous reality. I'm being completely myself, following my breath, conscious of my presence, and conscious of my thoughts and actions. There's no way I can be tossed around mindlessly like a bottle slapped here and there on the waves....
There are two ways to wash the dishes. The first is to wash the dishes in order to have clean dishes and the second is to wash the dishes in order to wash the dishes.
If while washing dishes, we think only of the cup of tea that awaits us, thus hurrying to get the dishes out of the way as they were a nuisance, then we are not "washing the dishes to wash the dishes." What's more, we are not alive during the time we are washing the dishes. In fact we are completely incapable of realizing the miracle of life while standing at the sink. If we can't wash the dishes, the chances are we won't be able to drink our tea either. While drinking the cup of tea, we will only be thinking of other things, barely aware of the cup in our hands. Thus, we are sucked away into the future -- and we are incapable of actually living one minute of life.
I remember a number of years ago, when [my friend] Jim and I were first traveling together in the United States, we sat under a tree and shared a tangerine. He began to talk about what we would be doing in the future. Whenever we thought about a project that seemed attractive or inspiring, Jim became so immersed in it that he literally forgot about what he was doing in the present. He popped a section of tangerine in his mouth and, before he had begun chewing it, had another slice ready to pop into his mouth again. He was hardly aware he was eating a tangerine. All I had to say was, "You ought to eat the tangerine section you've already taken." Jim was startled into realizing what he was doing.
It was as if he hadn't been eating the tangerine at all. If he had been eating anything, he was "eating" his future plans.
--Thich Nhat Hanh, The Miracle of Mindfulness
With each spoon polished in mindfulness, the Buddha smiles.
--Zen and the Art of Waitering
In all my time as a server, I've never been a fan of banquet service. I know a lot of waiters who vastly prefer it to the normal grind – there are set menus, not a lot of guest interaction, and it's usually not quite as hectic as just running a normal station. The main reason I've always shied away from it is that much of it consists of things I really don't consider “waiting tables”: moving tables, place setting, ironing tablecloths, polishing silverware, etc. I gravitated towards the service industry for a number of reasons, chief among them that I like being busy. Waiting tables demands your constant attention – it's task management, it's prioritizing, it's a constant flow. One of my favorite things about the job is when I look down at my watch and realize that 3 hours have flown by without my noticing; there's not much time for your mind to wander.
All that being said, in my new job (as a server assistant at a fine-dining restaurant), my night usually involves nothing but those types of “not waiting tables” tasks. I polish silverware, I polish wine glasses, I run food, I vacuum. When I'm serving the food I occasionally get to interact with the guests, where I explain the dishes, but that's only if the captain (the front waiter) is busy with another table.
The more I (try to) practice Zen though, the more in love with my new job I become. Every night gives me ample, ample opportunity to practice (and practice and practice) mindfulness in all my tasks. The best analogy I can give to a non-server about what waiting tables is like are those plate-spinners on the old Ed Sullivan show. You greet table 21 over here, take an order for table 11 over there, get a couple of drink refills for 22, the food should have been out by now for 12 so I'm going to run to the kitchen to see what's going on, now I've got to get back to 21 to see if they want any drinks, etc. You're constantly planning two or three steps ahead while at the same time attending to the demands of the moment and adjusting on the fly. We're continuously triaging the section, juggling the amount of attention and time given to each table and when.
As a server assistant, I have absolutely nothing to do but what I am doing right then. When I'm vacuuming, there is absolutely nothing else I can do but vacuum. When I'm running food to a table, there's nothing else for me to do but that, and nothing else to think about or plan for. Often when the restaurant is full all I can attend to is running food non-stop for most of the night, ending up when it slows down with a huge backlog of glasses and silverware to polish. I'll be standing there with a giant mound of silverware in front of me, and one of the other assistants will bring over yet another rack from the dishwasher to add to the pile, inevitably making some comment about how discouraging it all looks. For me, it doesn't matter. I know the only way the job is done is one spoon at a time, they'll all be polished eventually. And in that, there is peace.